Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Sao Paulo

Innovative food, relaxed diners, global variety and adventurous design. This might be Tokyo, London or New York. But Sao Paulo? Surely they only eat steaks, meat buffets and some sushi and bad Italian? Do they even eat?

These were my preconceptions of Sao Paulo before a recent visit, gladly all proven wrong. It is not Rio. The guys wear tieless suits and the girls wear Gucci. This is a city which works, eats, drinks and drives (and together too, sadly), as opposed to preening and playing foot volley on the beach with a beer in hand. More's the pity.

Avenue Paulista emerged as a new CBD for the city when the original one was left to rot. It features a lot of big business and shopping malls, but curiously some rare colonial mansions from Sao Paulo’s original coffee barons, a Bahia-style church and the beautiful Trianon park, which is a mini-rainforest haven in the midst of the chaos. And right opposite the brutalist masterpiece which is the Sao Paulo Museum of Art (MASP).

I love brutalist architecture and Sao Paulo has the best on the planet, dramatically juxtaposing with the other unplanned mayhem of the city, such as being retained as the base for the more modern skyscraper below.

Just off the Avenue Paulista is Spot where I had a fantastic dinner. Food is modern European, heavy on the pasta dishes. It’s very much a hotspot and as I came to learn, even the best cooking in Sao Paulo takes a backseat to posing, the scene and the amazing people-watching. The astounding frivolity and superficiality of the crowd is worth the steep prices, and somehow being among them seems less soul-destroying than the equivalent crowd might be in London. Pass it off as cultural curiosity and observation perhaps.

I stayed in the Jardims area which is split between leafy streets of huge mansions (behind even huger razor-wired walls) and the northern part which is a commercial area, full of the swankiest shops, restos and bars in the city. As with Buenos Aires, an apparent lack of heritage planning restrictions has led to some outstanding retail design and construction, with a few similarities to the quieter streets of West Hollywood and Omotesando. 

Ritz in the Jardims is owned by the same people as Spot, and came recommended for its burgers and caipirinhas. Having tried many Brazilian dishes at various lunches, this fully paid-up burger geek wanted to see what Sao Paulo had on that front. The blue cheese burger was deceptively vast; a thick, coarse patty smothered in heady gorgonzola. The bun visually lets it down and immediately brings a Big Mac to mind, but it tasted fine and managed to hold everything together. Ritz itself is well worth a visit – superb staff and drinks and much more on the menu than the burger. It has a McNally look and a very international crowd, but with a distinctly Brazilian pace and vibrancy to it.

I also spent some time in the Vila Madalena area, which again echoed LA and where a lot of Sao Paulo’s nascent ad agencies and production houses are located. It also houses Coffee Lab, a contemporary shrine to the humble bean which would hold its head up in London, Melbourne or Wellington, housing a roastery, indoor café, outdoor space amid tropical plants and a store selling the usual Chemex and Hario goodies. But exclusively for Sao Paulo. At about £3 a pop it’s expensive for Brazil, but for the increasing population of expats and coffee snobs here, this place is clearly a godsend.

Allez Allez in Vila Madalena is a cosy neighbourhood bistro, with impressive period features such as imposing wooden doors and a quintessentially colonial veranda. The peppercorn steak was a lovely tender piece of meat which I was harassed into having despite my protestations about visiting Buenos Aires the following day (Brazilians will argue their meat equals any from Argentina).

Typical Brazilian lunches are not a tragic Pret sarnie at desk affair at all. They are lazy, drawn out and rather debauched affairs which reassured me that the Brazilians will be too busy lunching and chatting to actually take over the world. Our jobs are safe. 

Two hour lunches are not uncommon on any day of the week, and a traditional buffet was a brilliant way to try a little bit of everything. This is different to the churrascarias better known in London (the indoor barbecue where unlimited meat is carved out for you) – here you pay by the weight.

It’d be a terrible place for a vegetarian. There are countless stews of different beasts, fried meat dishes and even this poor piggy:

Brazilian food is decadent, hearty, warm and satisfying, but fundamentally very unhealthy. This is evident around the midriffs of many in Sao Paulo – again, Rio this is not. Even at the classiest places, you will be brought dishes of pão de queijo - pastries filled with cheese (basically Gregg’s) which whoreishly appear as starters, desk snacks, bar snacks, breakfast and any other occasion where artery-damming stodge might be needed. Brazilians are probably buried with these in their coffins.

If deep fried, cheese, meat, salt and butter are key components for you, Brazil is the place. But make sure the treadmill is too. And skip hotel breakfasts for some amazing fruit – here are some ‘plain croissants’ from my hotel, which actually have shredded chicken through them, and some rank sausages floating in oily Heinz soup:

Astor was the most memorable meal of my time there. The place is beautifully decorated, with an amazing bar, art deco touches everywhere and a lively, cosmopolitan crowd. I had picadinho which is a Brazilian greatest hits and frankly more food on one plate than good manners should allow. Quite how anybody can wolf this down and go back to ‘work’ for another five hours is a mystery to me, but they manage in Sao Paulo, the economic, lunching and slumping centre of Latin America. 


It features rice, a separate jug of black beans, farofa (flour with corn and bacon, deep fried of course), deep-fried bananas, a few more pão de queijo in case the starters weren’t enough, and a mound of beef stew, similar to stroganoff. And with a poached egg on top for luck. It’s absolutely delicious obviously, but that and the bountiful sake caipirinhas render you incapable of doing anything afterwards. Welcome to Fridays in Sao Paulo...


  1. It was great, unexpectedly so. Lots of cool stuff to see and do, which I didn't know at all.